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Our Trip Within a Trip: An Excursion to South Taiwan

We are back in Taipei after the trip my in-laws planned to show us more of the country. Beforehand, it was billed to me by my husband as a one-hour ride south on a high speed train, renting a car so we could cruise the rest of the way down the coast, then relaxing at the beach for four days. It didn’t quite turn out like that, as we are both learning that traveling with a baby and your parents does not equal relaxing, but it was definitely an adventure.
Our destination was Kenting, a national park at the southern tip of Taiwan known for beautiful beaches. We left the house at nine a.m., so I was imagining we’d be frolicking in the surf by the afternoon. The journey proved to be much trickier than described (this is when my husband claims “lost in translation”). After a short subway ride to the train station, a scenic trip on the clean and comfortable high-speed rail to Kaohsiung, we hopped into the rental car and managed to get lost for hours due to the agency being out of GPS units and the lack of a good map or clearly marked roads. It was a blessing that I had a baby to tend to in the back who has discovered his voice and knows how to use it, because otherwise I would have been terrified that my husband and father-in-law were both looking at the map most of the trip instead of the road.
As we were driving along the coast, it felt just like the trip from Tijuana to Ensenada in Baja California – beautiful views, but shabbier construction, more treacherous roads and stray dogs as you go. So I was surprised when, seven hours after leaving the house, we finally rolled up to a sprawling, brightly colored hotel complex called the Chateau Beach Resort. His parents had booked us rooms at the Club Med of Taiwan. It’s the kind of touristy place my husband and I have avoided in the past, opting for smaller, unique boutique hotels, but I can see now why people flock to these all-inclusive resorts. They are incredibly family-friendly. I guess this is our new world of traveling with a child to consider.
Road-weary and as cranky as my poor nap-deprived baby, I perked up a little when they showed us to our room and they had provided a Pack-n-Play and baby bathtub. And even more when I saw our window overlooked an incredible network of pools, some designated for small children, and a giant, gorgeous beach. Hallelujah. We settled in, then toured the grounds which included an arcade, craft room, archery area, volleyball courts, bike rentals, a cafe, shops, and a couple restaurants. Something for everyone. We ate at the buffet dinner, where a highchair and a baby bowl and spoon materialized before we had time to even ask for it.
After bathing and putting an oh-so-sleepy Little Man in his cozy crib, we set up the camera and gave the video monitor to my husband’s parents who had a room next door so they could come get him if he started crying, and we were off to explore – a nice perk to traveling with in-laws. Otherwise, we would be stuck in our room trying to be quiet after 8 p.m. This way, we got to check out Kenting town at night, which is a lot like Cabo or any other tourist-driven beach town, with souvenir shops, discos and bars pumping loud club music. Only, this is Taiwan, so there are also food stalls lining the streets. Even though we’d just eaten, we managed to sample goodies like fried milk, fresh coconut, and of course, my husband had a variety of meats on a stick.
It felt like we were on a date. Only, when we came back, there was my father-in-law about to go into our room because somebody was up. Our little buddy woke up every couple of hours, and was wide awake by six a.m. That’s when you start wondering, “Why did we think it was a good idea to travel with a kid? Wait, why did we have a kid in the first place? Can we send him back?”
And then you see his little face the first time he goes in a swimming pool and he clings to you because he’s unsure and then a few minutes later is wriggling like a fish and splashing with his hands and beaming at you. And a little later he is giggling because his Grandpa is burying him in the sand. And then he’s taking giant steps toward the waves while the love of your life holds his pudgy hands, and you think, “This. This is what I came here for.” And I wanted to stay forever.
But it turns out we were leaving the next morning. The folks had planned a night in Kaohsiung, so we left that lovely place after only one great afternoon at the beach, and got back in the dreaded car. This time, we didn’t get so lost, and made a worthwhile stop at an amazing aquarium, the Taiwan National Museum of Marine Biology. A whale shark! A beluga whale! Glass tunnels under a huge amount of water and a stunning array of fish, stingrays and sharks! This was definitely on par with the Monterey Bay Aquarium I’m used to going to, and a highlight of our trip.
The highlight of Kaohsiung was definitely the food. I’ve been on the search for the best shaved ice (“tsua bing”, a dessert specialty) in Taiwan and found it here at PoPo’s (“Grandma’s”) in the Yancheng district next to our hotel, the Kingship. I will describe this perfect dessert in loving detail in the food post, but let’s just call it creamy dreamy mango goodness for now. The Liouhe Night Market was also a delight, where my little carnivorous baby got his first taste of pig knuckles and I got “di gua”, deep-fried cubes of sweet potato rolled in melted syrupy sugar that hardens like a crunchy candy coating, still soft and sweet inside. Delish.
The Kingship was decidedly un-family friendly. No special baby stuff. Not even enough room on the floor to set up the pop-up tent we brought for him, which meant he was sleeping with us. Or not sleeping, since the hotel had absolutely no sound-proofing and you could hear everything from the wedding banquet five floors below us, to the painfully loud tour group of obnoxious old people staying on our floor (they came in around nine p.m. and left around seven a.m. like a troop of hollering baboons, both times a couple crones even knocked on our door in search of their friend and ran away when my husband answered) to the woefully wailing baby a few doors down whose parents must have left him alone to cry it out while they partied at the banquet downstairs.
The next morning, everyone was tired and cranky again. We traveled home during prime nap-time, so Little Man did not get good sleep again. By the time we got back to Taipei, the beach was already a distant memory and I was ready to go home. Like home home. To my own space and my baby’s routine. But we still have a bit to go, and after some sleep I feel up to making the most of it again. Though I wonder when the words “relaxing” and “vacation” will ever go together again.

(Those of you anxious to see pictures will have to wait until I get back home since I can’t download them directly from my camera to the iPad. Bummer.)

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Baby on Board: Slow Travel by Necessity

Before our son was born, my husband and I naively proclaimed that this baby would operate on our schedule. After all, if we just took him everywhere we went, wouldn’t he be used to traveling and eating out late and just adapt to our on-the-go lifestyle? I just heard the collective “HA!” of all you seasoned parents who know what a pipe dream that was. How wrong we were really sank in on the way back from a weekend trip to Tahoe when he was barely two months old, during which he screamed his lungs out, making what should have been a four-hour trip take nearly eight with all the times we stopped to comfort him and try to figure out what he needed. Fortunately, he’s gotten better at being in his car seat, but we have certainly learned that babies come with their own set of needs and preferences which require huge adaptation on our parts, and often deference of our own desires. Duh. Welcome to parenthood, right?

While becoming parents has dramatically impacted our day-to-day routine (wow, we watch a lot of TV since we have to be home for his 6pm bedtime and dang, getting up for the day at dark:thirty hurts), one of the things I miss most about our pre-baby life (besides sleep) was the ease of travel without a little one. We could up and go without packing or planning much. We could drive into the night and sleep until noon to make up for it. We could take international flights to multiple destinations and not think twice. That life is gone. And we can mourn it and be miserable, or we can adapt. I wrote about the Slow Movement as it applies to parenting a couple posts ago, and Slow Travel seems to be the philosophy that will serve us well at this stage of our lives, and maybe convert us in the hereafter.

“The art of living,” says Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, “is about learning how to give time to each and every thing.” Whether it’s slow food, travel, or parenting, it simply means doing things at the appropriate pace to truly enjoy the experience. It means gathering with friends to prepare a meal together instead of eating fast food. It means stooping to see and feel and smell the grass with your son as he explores it for the first time instead of urging him to hurry up to get wherever you are going. Slow travel is about being present in the moment, not checking off must-see destinations with your nose in a guidebook, not getting from here to there as fast as possible, but enjoying the journey and taking the time to engage in the culture wherever you are.

We have become slower travelers by necessity. In his first nine months, we have only taken our son on short trips around our home state of California. Hardcore slow travelers even eschew driving or flying. In this way, it is a philosophy that goes hand in hand with Ecotourism, attempting to do as little damage as possible, and even aiming to help out the place you’re going. Fortunately, we live in an amazing place and just staying home in San Francisco can be like traveling around the world with the right frame of mind. But we are in desperate need of a true vacation.

So, we are going on our first international trip with Little Man. Pre-baby, we had hoped to hop around Indonesia this year. We went to Gili Meno and Java right before we got pregnant, and made great friends we’d love to see again, plus we wanted to go to Bali and some of the other islands. Post-baby we realize this would be a tad too ambitious, and probably not enjoyable to lug a baby around an extremely hot, occasionally dangerous, and often frustrating country. We’ll save that until he can carry his own bag. For now, we are headed to Taiwan. We are going to stay with my husband’s parents in Taipei for three weeks. We will have a home base. We will live in the city like locals. If we go anywhere, we will take the train to the coast, and play at the beach. We will hunker down and take it slow. It will be better for the environment, for our baby’s schedule, for the thrilled grandparents, and for our peace of mind.

Just like I would never label myself “green” or “progressive” because I could never live up to the die-hard followers of those philosophies, I wouldn’t call myself truly “slow” yet. But just as I believe my attempt to be a little greener whenever possible is good, I think taking it a little slower will make a difference, too.

Stay tuned for adventures in slow travel with Little Man and the in-laws. We leave on April 6th and I will hopefully be posting regularly while we’re there from my new iPad!